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Fereshteh Forough’s company Code to Inspire aims to close Afghanistan’s tech gender gap

IT girls

How learning to code can bring Afghan girls into the global tech marketplace

By Carole Vaporean on September 7, 2015

How do you create jobs for women in a place where their travel and employment is restricted, prevailing views about their abilities severely limited, a banking system is lacking, and getting paid in cash can jeopardize their lives?

The answer: Code to Inspire, the latest effort of an Afghan entrepreneur to empower women in her country — setting up computer labs that teach them to write software, providing a safe woman-only space to accommodate conservative attitudes, and finding them jobs cloaked by the anonymity of the internet. To address the limitations of Afghanistan’s banking system, as well as safety issues, the jobs also pay in digital currency that the women can spend online.

Still in the fundraising phase, Code to Inspire is only the latest project of social entrepreneur Fereshteh Forough toward a larger goal of upgrading the status of women in Afghanistan. Forough was a co-founder of Women’s Annex Foundation (later renamed Digital Citizen Fund), a project begun to outfit computer labs for high-school girls in Herat, Afghanistan to teach them social media and blogging. About a year ago, her focus shifted to starting up Code to Inspire.

It was students who initially led Forough to her goal of empowering women. After earning her Master’s degree in computer science from Technical University of Berlin, she returned to teach at Herat University where she noticed many of her female students would wait until after class to ask questions. “If they don’t ask that question, they can’t follow the lesson, and they don’t know what’s going on,” she says.

Convincing customers to trust women’s abilities has proven difficult. “When you say, ‘Hey, we’re a tech company and we can design websites and develop software for you,’ they think, ‘Oh, women, we don’t think they can design a website. It’s not going to work.’ And that’s a main issue,” says the 27-year-old Code to Inspire CEO.

She and Mahboob learned business planning and grant writing at an incubator for start-ups established by IBM and the U.S. State Department in Herat. It was here that she connected with a U.S. non-profit called The Business Council for Peace. sought women-based business owners in Afghanistan who wanted to learn best practices from U.S. companies. They matched Forough with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Phoenix, and then helped her apply what she learned to solve issues that came up back in Afghanistan, like how to pay taxes.

Forough spoke to Women in the World about the promise and challenges of bringing Afghanistan’s women more fully into the global technology marketplace.

WITW: Can you offer some specifics about your collaboration with BPeace?

Fereshteh Forough: They were interested in how we could work together in Afghanistan. We suggested helping women get access to the Internet. There are a lot of cultural and traditional issues for women. For example, if they go somewhere to access the Internet, they are often faced with verbal harassment. Financially, a lot of families cannot afford $1 or $2 an hour to go on the Internet. So we suggested creating a computer media lab for girl students. It’s safe because it’s inside the school, but it’s also free of charge. That’s how we founded a non-profit called Women’s Annex Foundation.

With corporate donors, Women’s Annex Foundation (now Digital Citizen Fund), built 11 computer media labs in girls’ public high schools and two media centers, in Herat and Kabul. We upgraded the rooms they gave us and brought in computers and the Internet. My co-founder Roya renamed it Digital Citizen Fund and is running it for high school girls, teaching the basics about social media and blogging.

WITW: What drove you to create Code to Inspire?

FF: I always wanted to do something for women in technology because of the many challenges facing girls in Afghanistan. When a girl graduates from computer science school, not a lot of them can be professors because the universities don’t need extra teachers. Also, families have conservative views about women’s employment. They want them to become a teacher, which is considered a well-respected job, partly because they would only be working with other women. Being a teacher may be possible, but you would only teach simple basics, not very technical issues.

It’s also difficult for women with a computer background to find work with a company. If, for example, a girl from Herat found a job like website designer in Kabul, most families would not let their daughters travel to another city for a job, especially because of safety issues. It’s not part of our culture to go live with family members in another city or have a roommate. So, it makes it challenging for women to find a job outside of their hometown. If you want to create your own start-up in tech, it’s very male dominated, not only in Afghanistan, but worldwide.

So, I created Code to Inspire. I thought, ‘Let’s create a safe center for women.’ We just filed for 501(c)(3) non-profit status as an educational foundation to teach women in Afghanistan how to code so they can find jobs online and get paid online.

WITW: What will Code to Inspire do?

FF: There are two aspects of our computer labs. One is to provide a place where the girls can learn and get experience. For that, our target group is girls at the high-school level. We teach them fun things about computer science, like how to design a website, how to use content management systems like WordPress, how to make animation. Once they finish high school, they will be more likely to select computer science as their major, so we can increase the number of women in technology.

The other aspect of the lab is enabling women to find a job. We are talking to a couple of companies here in the U.S. to see whether they will give the girls a small job to do, like website design, maintain their website, translate an application into Farsi, or develop one part of an application. The women can come to our centers, use the facilities, do the job, and get paid online. Definitely, one of our main important missions is to help the girls find a job based on what they study in the lab and then get paid.

Our curriculum is mainly computer science, either XML or Java script or advanced mobile technology development, but also social media, like how to create a Twitter account and LinkedIn account and use them in professional ways. If someone wants to hire the girls, they might go and check their social presence. We help them improve their online presence. We also teach about digital currencies like bitcoin.

WITW: When do you expect to have Code to Inspire’s center up and running?

FF: Right now we are in the fundraising phase. We just ran a campaign on Because it was overfunded, Indiegogo upgraded it to “In Demand,” so, we still can receive donations. Our goal of $20,000 was for purchasing hardware—laptops, printers, projectors—and equipment like desks and chairs for the labs. We only need 20 laptops for two labs with 10 girls in each lab for a one-year program. We are starting with 50 girls this year—10 from a computer science school and 40 from high school. Then, we will connect them to people outside. Meanwhile, once we find any big donors who can help us with overhead and operational costs, we can establish our programming center in Herat.

WITW: What does the team listed on your website do for Code to Inspire?

FF: I have a great team helping me, including two people from law firms, a finance manager from Deloitte, two amazing women from Google and IBM and also my other advisory board members with technical, social media and entrepreneurial expertise.

WITW: Earlier, you mentioned bitcoin. Why bitcoin?

FF: The first non-profit I helped create, Women’s Annex Foundation, taught students how to write blogs and get paid. We used, an online blogging platform. You don’t need to put your real picture or name on it, so it maintains the girls’ privacy. They blogged about whatever they wanted, except political or religious issues. If people like what you post or share, you get paid.

They used to pay our Afghan users in dollars. But the girls faced a lot of issues with that. One was that many of the girls were underage so they did not have a bank account. A lot of people in Afghanistan don’t have a bank account. Definitely, women are the majority of them. And, Paypal isn’t supported in Afghanistan. When bitLanders decided to send bitcoin instead of dollars to all of their users, including in Afghanistan, we started sending bitcoin to our students at that time.

WITW: Can they spend bitcoin?

FF: In the States, there are lots of exchange platforms and online shopping centers like and you can get whatever you want with bitcoin. But, there are two main issues in Afghanistan. One, there is no place to exchange bitcoin into afghani (the local currency). The second is that you can buy books, magazines or software, but you can’t buy shoes, dresses or laptops. Why? Because the majority of places in Afghanistan do not have a shipping address. If I want to buy something online, I can’t have it right at my door. Big organizations can, but I can’t. So that limits what you can do with your bitcoin.

WITW: Can they send online purchases to a shipping center?

FF: With Code to Inspire we decided to use bitcoin because, first of all, we want to increase awareness. It’s an empowerment tool for people in developing countries that lack the structure of a banking system. It’s a great technology for enabling people to send and receive money without a bank. So, we spoke with companies like and suggested they open a storage space in Herat, where people can shop with bitcoin. Overstock can ship their goods to the center and shoppers would go pick it up. This is one thing we are working on.

The other is to talk to local shops. The first target is electronics shops that sell gadgets like smart phones to try to get them to accept bitcoin. We are trying to create more awareness and get more bitcoin in the marketplace.

WITW: Are you targeting mobile phones in your curriculum?

FF: Afghanistan’s population is about 30 million and about 85 percent of them have access to mobiles. So, we thought it would be a good idea to develop applications for mobile users. With that, girls get experience learning how to develop a program from scratch to the final stage. They are also learning teamwork and problem solving. It does not have to be a serious problem, it can be something educational, fun or even a game. They would come up with an idea and develop it. This is the technical aspect.

For the social impact, we are going to develop the apps in the local languages, Pashto and Dari. Imagine a man who does not believe a woman can do something. He is going to download that game or whatever the girls have developed, and after using it he will start to believe, “Yes, women can do these things, too.” That’s empowerment in itself.

Also, Afghanistan has a lot of traditional games and stories that we thought we could transfer into mobile apps in English so that people outside of Afghanistan can download and use them. At first, they will say, “Wow, the girls in Afghanistan developed these.” We also want to promote the good side of Afghanistan. What most people see is war and destruction and violence towards women. Through that mobile app we are promoting a peaceful message about Afghanistan.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Roya Mahboob was a co-founder of Code to Inspire and that Fereshteh Forough was co-founder of Women’s Annex. Forough was co-founder of Women’s Annex Foundation.